Behind US peace feeler

The Soviet Union's withdrawal of some military units from Afghanistan is taking place against a background of steady deterioration among the Soviet's Afghan allies, according to State Department analysts.

For this reason, these analysts do not expect this limited withdrawal to amount to -- in the end -- much more than a "reconfiguration" of Soviet units. Units which are not suited to fighting guerrillas are being taken out, they say. More mobile units are likely to be brought in. This would leave Soviet troop strength at about the same level as, or perhaps even higher than, it was before the Soviet leadership announced the withdrawal, analysts say.

The analysts assert that the deteriorating situation on the ground is not likely to permit a major withdrawal of Soviet forces for months to come. In their view, it also makes it unlikely that the Soviets would, for some time to come, be able to accept the American's proposed guarantee of Afghan neutrality and a "transitional arrangement" which would accompany any full withdrawal of Soviet forces.

But State Department officials say that the US offer has several purposes and that it could become useful in now unforeseen ways once the parties to the Afganistan conflict got closer to a diplomatic settlement.

According to one official, the American offer is aimed at least in part at: ( 1) aligning the US and its allies with the Islamic nations which are making their own diplomatic approaches to the Afghan problem, and (2) assuring the Soviets that the United States has only limited aims in that part of the world and does not want to create a regime on the Soviet border which would be hostile to them.

The US offer was raised publicly for the first time at Belgrade on June 24 by President Carter. On June 26, the Soviet news agency Tass sharply attacked American policy in the Middle East and South Asia, in an apparent rejection of the offer.

US officials say that the Soviet reaction is not surprising.

Some says that it has even been milder so far than they expected. Any positive reaction might only come, they say, some months from now, when the Soviets might be prepared to seek a face-saving way out of Afghanistan under as yet unforeseen circumstance. In this sense, the US offer resembles feelers which were put out to the Soviets over Berlin in the 1940s. It took Soviet diplomats months to respond in any positive way. But once they did respond, it lead to an end of the Berlin blockade.

"Prudent and sensible diplomacy requires that you leave a few options around which your adversaries can pick up once they're willing to talk," says a US official.

The US offer had the unspoken, but added advantage, of moving the US in the direction of assuaging West European fears that the Americans were, through a hard line on Afghanistan, somehow reviving cold war tensions with the Soviets. At the same time, the US has not departed from its original line that, eventually, the Soviet troops in Afghanistan must go. What it has added is the possibility of a transitional period during which arrangements could be tested which would demonstrate to the Soviets that they are not going to be threatened from Afghanistan.

For the time being, however, the Soviet seems to have their hands in full in Afghanistan: American analysts say that much of what remains of the Afghan army is confined to garrisons because the troops cannot be trusted on combat missions. The Soviets must do more and more of the fighting. Reports from travellers and other sources indicate that some Afghan units accompanying Soviet units have fired on the Soviets before disappearing into the hills.

Factionalism among the Afghan communists is worse than ever, one analysts said. And another analyst said there were repeated reports of midnight sweeps undertaken in the capital city of Kabul to round up youths for the army.

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